Nous Sommes Charlie? Behind the Massacre

Article by: Carlos Po

Photos compiled by: Matthew Seet

Video by: Bernice Delos Reyes, Cristian Ayala, and Tomas Matias

On January 7, 2015, Muslim brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine both celebrated and notorious for its facetiousness especially concerning sensitive topics such as religion. Armed with automatic weapons and shouting “Allahu akbar” (Arabic for “God is great”), the brothers systematically murdered 12 members of the Charlie Hebdo staff—including the magazine’s editor—and wounded 11 others. 

Four days later, over two million people gathered for a rally of national unity in Paris to honor the slain and celebrate the right to free speech. Soon the words “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) were heard ubiquitously as expressions of solidarity for these champions of free speech and of mourning for their tragic loss. The magazine’s latest issue will feature the prophet Muhammad holding a sign that reads “Je suis Charlie” along with the words “All are forgiven” floating above his head. 3 million copies of the magazine will be printed for a special commemorative issue, and its cover has already been printed in international publications such as the Washington Post, German Frankfurter Allgemeine, Italian Corriere della Sera, and the UK’s Guardian.

But Senior Cartoonist Bernard Holtrop has an eye-opener to offer about the solidarity many important figures have shown to Charlie Hebdo: “We have a lot of new friends, like the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and Putin. It really makes me laugh. We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.” With this rather unexpected sentiment, Holtrop suggests, perhaps rightfully so, that the support the tragedy has amassed seems to be grounded more in its bandwagon appeal than in its invocation for greater protection of fundamental liberties.

So far, the massacre has proven to be yet another poignant reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. But it also raises a few questions: is there a fine line between valid criticism of a belief system and pure slander of its followers? If so, where is it and are Charlie Hebdo and its staff guilty of crossing it?

In the past, the publication has been acknowledged to have crossed some lines. In 2005, a newspaper running Charlie Hebdo’s content was found guilty of “racist defamation” of Judaism and the Jewish people, and was ordered by the court to pay a sum to an Israeli-French organization. In a huge 2008 media controversy that drew harsh words from figures such as the French mayor, the French minister of culture, and a venerated French philosopher, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, was fired for making offensive anti-semitic remarks in an article and refusing to apologize. Even the newest issue of the magazine may be deemed as crossing the line seeing as its centerpiece is the prophet Muhammad, whose appearance in images is banned by religious law in order to prevent idolatry. So far, the cover has engendered mixed reactions from Muslims: some find it a humbling, conciliatory gesture by the magazine’s editors while others see it as a crude attempt to backtrack the magazine’s long history of portraying the Prophet as a bumbling fool.

Amidst emotionally charged times such as these, it is easy to get lost in polarized and visceral debate but it is important to steer clear of rigid binaries and remain open-minded. For some of us that means conceding that while religious sentiment should be respected, murder is in no way an excusable response. For others it is realizing that while murder is an inexcusable response, caricaturing and mocking religious beliefs goes beyond hurting religious sentiment. It actually negatively shapes our interactions with and perceptions of the related ethnicity—especially when such caricaturing is frequently focused on the same one. Respect for religious sentiment and the freedom of speech do not need to be mutually exclusive and until we can see that, freedom of speech will continue to be threatened and religious sentiment to be hurt.